Vera Wang’s Fashion Empire

Ruven Afanador

She’s a 60-year-old in black leggings and booties, a designer who sells $800 tank tops at Bergdorf’s and $30 T-shirts at Kohl’s. An independent party in the age of the multibrand luxury empire. Which is exactly why Vera Wang may be the great fashion hope for the modern thinking woman.

Vera Wang is staring at a model dressed in nothing but a transparent piece of black tulle and a pair of brightly colored panties. The model is shivering slightly but nobody seems to notice, least of all Wang, who is focused intently on the way the fabric floats over the young woman’s barely-there torso.

“It needs to have more of an edge,” she says in her distinctive nasal voice, an unholy marriage between Park and Seventh avenues. One of her assistants grabs an extravagant cobweb necklace from a board trimmed with costume jewelry and hangs it around the model’s neck. “Too much edge,” Wang says. He drapes a cape around the model’s shoulders. “Too lady!” Finally, after pieces of fabric have been whisked on and off, Wang likes what she sees. “That’s heaven!” she says about a black silk jersey tunic that will later be matched with a sequined collar and a pair of rocker pants. “It feels so much better now. I want everything to be young and modern. Sexy, but not too sexy. Rock and roll—but my way.”

Wang, who studied drama and art history at Sarah Lawrence College, is highly theatrical. She is also fascinating to watch, if only for the purpose of determining how a 60-year-old can have such remarkably toned triceps. Today she is dressed in a pale gray zip-up jacket, slouchy harem pants, and Martin Margiela split-toed ankle boots. It’s a tough look to pull off, but Wang has the requisite attitude. “They were really rocking it downtown,” she says about the previous night’s party at her SoHo boutique. “It was like a rave—a really insane amount of people.”

Wang is in full party mode these days, having drawn inspiration for her spring 2010 ready-to-wear collection from French couturier Paul Poiret. Famous for his lavish fêtes, he liberated women from stiff undergarments, emphasizing fluidity and movement. Wang’s collection is called “Partying with Poiret,” but up until a few weeks ago it was a joyless affair. “Maybe it was because I just turned sixty,” she says, “but things weren’t as youthful as I thought they should be. I asked myself, ‘Do you want to look seventy—or forty?’ I had all these bright colors that weren’t working, so I threw out at least a quarter million dollars worth of fabric. Once I got rid of the color, it all came together….Of course, now I’m worried everything’s too black. But who wears a lot of color?”

Midway through the afternoon, Wang begins selecting models for the show from a group of impossibly beautiful women strutting up and down the room and awaiting the designer’s final approval. She points to a preppy blonde with exquisite bone structure. “She could be from Chapin,” she says, referring to the Manhattan private school she attended.

“No one from Chapin looks like that,” an assistant points out.

“Yeah,” Wang says with a laugh. “I guess you’re right.”

In between auditioning the models, Wang listens to a selection of music for her show. She’s partial to a version of The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” from the Across the Universe soundtrack. As the music plays, she begins to dance around the room. She stops suddenly. “Wait a minute. I’m having a moment…with a shoe.” She stares at a pair of black leather sandals the models will be wearing; the shoes have thick straps and four-inch platforms. “I have no idea how anybody is going to walk in them, but they’re totally fierce.” A few minutes later Wang has another “moment,” this time with a picture of tennis star Juan Martín del Potro’s biceps. Someone checks his age on the Internet. “What? He was born in 1988?” Wang says. “I don’t want to sound like Methuselah, but I’ve been around a long time.” Another model walks into the room wearing a white sequined dress, one of the designer’s few nods to color. “What have you done before?” Wang asks.

“Prada and then school,” the model replies.

“Proenza Schouler?”

“No, Prada and school.”

“I’ve been in this business too long,” says Wang. “Wait a minute! I’m having another moment.”

Remarkably, her biggest moments may lie ahead. At an age when most people are happy to savor their accomplishments, Wang is pushing even harder to make sure her name will be as important as Chanel’s. She’s doing it, as she does everything, her own way. After toying with the idea of appearing as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, she is said to be developing her own reality TV show. While the idea might sound a bit cheesy coming from someone known for her elegant bridal gowns, the designer has two distinct sides to her personality. The names of two of her perfumes say it best: There’s Princess, then there’s Rock Princess. Princess Vera lives uptown, concocting sophisticated bridal fantasies, while Rock Princess Vera is a rebel in motorcycle boots. The designer’s enthusiasm for American culture, both high and low, as well as her ferocious love of fashion, is what makes her brand so relevant, especially in today’s struggling retail climate. Though she lives at 740 Park Avenue, one of New York’s most prestigious addresses, and admits she’s probably spent more on clothes than “99 percent of the population,” she is equally at home designing a $30 T-shirt for her Simply Vera line at Kohl’s as she is creating Ivanka Trump’s five-figure wedding gown. She also does linens, stationery, jewelry, and eyewear, and she has even put her name on a Serta mattress. “Vera is very proud of the way she can change her mind-set,” says Mario Grauso, who left Carolina Herrera and Puig to become president of the Vera Wang Group. “She thinks very young. You see her coming out of 740 Park in an aggressive shoe and a crazy fur, then jumping into a big black van that looks like something a rapper would drive.”

“You can’t become obsolete like couture,” Wang says. “It’s a different world we’re playing in, and you have to stay relevant if you want to stay in the game.” Wang is the first to admit that design’s business side has been a huge challenge of late. Unlike designers who work under the umbrella of a multinational corporation, Wang is CEO and chairman of her own privately held company. Annual sales, more than half of which are derived from licensing, are estimated at about $700 million a year, but she keeps only 5 to 10 percent of that. Money has been tight, and Wang, a perfectionist, is known for her extravagance. She hired award-winning architecture firm Gabellini Sheppard Associates, who did the Jil Sander stores, to create her first ready-to-wear boutique in SoHo, which opened in November 2008. Now she’s planning a second in Los Angeles. Lavender Label, Wang’s bridge line, was hit hard by the economy. She has never made it a secret that her greatest love is ready-to-wear. What’s tough is that it takes about $10 million a year to finance. In need of cash, she struck the deal with Kohl’s to produce a line of affordable fashion and home goods. The collection was introduced in 2007 and is now sold in all of Kohl’s 1,059 stores, where Wang’s chic sequined sweaters, chunky jewelry, and hip ankle boots—most under $100—hang next to Daisy Fuentes’s snakeskin blouses and puffer vests.

“I’m not telling people that if they go into Kohl’s and buy my clothes they’re going to feel great walking down Avenue Montaigne,” she says. “I take that back. With some pieces, you would feel great. But that’s not how I’m billing it. It’s all about how we dress today.”

And today we’re definitely having a very Vera moment. Walking down Seventh Avenue en route to her 39th Street office, I count about 30 Vera clones wearing the designer’s uniform of black leggings and short ankle boots. How did it come to be that young girls are emulating a 60-year-old? Is Vera Wang that rare creature, a cross-generational role model?

“Vera is just very cool,” says her close friend Candy Pratts Price, the executive fashion director of Style.com. “She brings her humor and casual sense of style to everything she does. She’ll invite me over, we’ll take off our shoes, eat Chinese, and talk about Sharon Stone. She isn’t diva-ish. It’s just that she’s lived this incredibly refined life.”

Unlike other American designers who arrived in Manhattan from the Midwest or Mosholu Parkway with big dreams and a dog-eared copy of Vogue, Wang grew up on Park Avenue. If she wanted to look at exquisite clothes she only needed to peruse her mother’s couture-filled closets. Yet she, too, was an outsider, an Asian in an Upper East Side WASP world. Her father, Cheng Ching Wang, the son of Chiang Kai-shek’s war minister, made a fortune in pharmaceuticals and oil, while her mother, Florence, the daughter of a feudal warlord, worked as a United Nations translator and loved the arts and fashion. “Now it seems that everyone in New York is Asian,” Wang says, “but when I was growing up, they mostly owned laundries or Chinese restaurants. My parents were thoroughly international, so I didn’t fit in the Asian community either.” At seven, she took up ice skating, crafting a world that was distinctly hers. Wang’s father had skated in China, and they’d practice together on the sailboat pond in Central Park. “I can’t go by that pond without thinking about it,” she says, her voice taking on an uncharacteristic softness. “I even remember the bench where I laced up my first skates.” Though Wang admits she wasn’t a natural, she was so determined that she eventually rose to the top. But after failing to make the 1968 Olympic team, she quit the sport a year later. “It was brutal,” she says. But in many ways skating prepared her for the fashion business. “I’m used to falling down,” she says, “and I’m used to getting right up again.”

Wang spent her junior year at the Sorbonne, living with her mother in the family’s Paris apartment. They attended the couture shows, and Wang, who’d always been enamored of fashion and had designed her own skating costumes, decided to make it her life’s work. Her big break came while she was working one summer at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Madison Avenue. Frances Patiky Stein, then Vogue’s fashion director, told Wang to give her a call after graduation.

Wang had hoped to attend design school, but her father refused to pay the tuition, urging her to study business or law. “He said, ‘If you think you’re such a hotshot, get a job,’ ” Wang says. So she took up Stein’s offer and landed at Vogue, embarking on what she calls “a wild, incredible ride.” She became an editor at 23. “To be in New York at that time, well, it was insane,” she says. “So was the pressure. You had to be at Studio 54 at night, but that’s part of the job description. At Vogue, you had to be fairly groovy.”

Wang spent nearly two decades at the magazine but left in 1987, just months before Anna Wintour was made editor-in-chief. Eager to start her own design business, she asked her father for money. In what was now shaping up to be an epic battle, he told her that while she’d proved herself in the magazine world, she hadn’t yet shown him that she could succeed in the fashion business. Wang moved on to Ralph Lauren, where she became the design director for women’s accessories but stayed only two years. Having just wed longtime beau Arthur Becker, she was now, at 40, undergoing time-consuming fertility treatments. (The couple eventually adopted two daughters.) After 21 years without a break, Wang was happy to take time off. But her father finally agreed to give her money to start a business—provided it was in the bridal industry—and Princess Vera was born.

The official story is that Wang, unable to find a suitably fashionable dress for her own wedding, created one herself. While Wang did indeed create her own gown, she had no thoughts of entering the bridal business—she didn’t even consider it fashion but merely a commodity. What’s more, Wang, whose favorite color is black, wasn’t much of a romantic. But unwilling to walk away from a challenge, she opened a shop in The Carlyle hotel, and in 1990 began a radical makeover of the bridal industry. Instead of designing gowns that turned every woman into a sugarplum fairy, she created sophisticated drama with couture fabrics and sheer-illusion netting.

Bridal did indeed become the cornerstone of Wang’s brand, and for Princess Vera it was a wonderful life; for Rock Princess Vera, not so much. Wang longed to have her own ready-to-wear line, realizing that without one she’d never be considered a major designer. Her father was “stridently” against the idea, but in 2000 she introduced a few pieces of daywear to her collections. At first the minimalist design was compared unfavorably to Jil Sander’s. But after several seasons she began playing off her own contradictions. She paired dressy fabrics with masculine tops and skinny pants. Critics called it “melancholy,” “arty,” and “intellectual”—traits that Wang readily ascribes to herself.

In 2005, inspired by the brooding colors in Flemish painting, she designed her breakout collection, the one that New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn called the moment when Wang went “from being known as a designer of bridal and evening clothes to just Ms. Wang, designer.” That year Wang won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s award for Womenswear Designer of the Year. “It made all my years at Vogue and at Ralph, and doing bridal, worthwhile,” she says. “You’re either in the history books or you’re not. I didn’t make the history books in skating, but I did here.”

The following year Wang’s father died the morning she was scheduled to show her spring collection; after saying good-bye to him, she walked the runway, tears streaming down her cheeks. The show, which she’d dedicated to him, was a paean to dancers and the freedom of movement—a fitting tribute to a man who in many ways had attempted to restrain her but whose financial support had allowed her to soar.

Since then Wang’s collections have continued to grow more confident, drawing inspiration from such strong, colorful women as the novelist Françoise Sagan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Wang likes for her designs to tell stories. Her talent for creating visual drama has sometimes obscured her skills as a designer. The Times’ Horyn has repeatedly taken her to task. “Vera Wang has taste but not a unique sensibility,” she wrote in 2008. A year earlier, she criticized Wang for lacking “imagination and courage,” and that she was “continually defeated by her own eye, which is a magazine editor’s eye.” Wang admits that she reads her reviews. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t,” she says. “But they don’t influence my creative decisions.” And Wang clearly enjoys the flamboyant women who populate her narratives. “The women who fascinate me have multiple acts,” she says. “They continue to find interesting things to do with their lives right until the end.”

It’s 9:15 a.m.—a little early for a celebration—but “Partying with Poiret” is in full swing. Against the all-white backdrop of Wang’s SoHo boutique, the models, in their treacherous platforms, carefully navigate a towering staircase. The cobweb necklaces, which only a few days ago had been discarded, are now featured prominently. The white sequined dress, however, is nowhere to be seen. It didn’t belong with the dark, sensual parade of crepe de chine playsuits, tulle party skirts, gauze dresses decorated with purple poppies, and tunics adorned with tulips. While the somber colors run counter to the colorful prints other designers are showing for spring, the overall effect is strange and beautiful: Tim Burton meets Baudelaire. Watching the show, what intrigues me most about Wang is that she designs for women whose closets you want to raid after reading their biographies. The stories don’t end with the clothes, or with a single moment. The collection would go on to receive excellent reviews—Horyn praised its “lovely modern civility,” while WWD declared that it “radiated an artful chic.” An editor from British Vogue reportedly wept.

Five weeks later, Wang is holding her bridal show in her 39th Street design studio. In a nod to Cecil Beaton’s famous black-and-white Ascot scene in My Fair Lady, the models are dressed in the palest shades of organza and taffeta, nearly all accentuated with a touch of black—a horsehair bow, a grosgrain sash, a pair of leather gloves. Toward the end, a model appears in a strapless shirred wedding gown with floating crystal petals. It’s over-the-moon gorgeous. It’s edgy. It’s fierce. And yes, it’s black.